A light on Bob Slocum
By Molly Englund
In January 2019, the journal Plant, Cell, and Environment published an article called “Ectopic Expression of a Pea Apyrase Enhances Root System Architecture and Drought Survival in Arabidopsis and Soybean.” One of the authors was Robert D. Slocum, Bob to his friends and colleagues, professor of biology to his hundreds of former Goucher students.
The paper is the result of collaborative research with Slocum’s former doctoral mentor at the University of Texas at Austin and funded by a biotech company called Texas Crop Science. It is Slocum’s 50th peer-reviewed publication. “That’s a big deal for me, being at a small college,” Slocum said, as that kind of publication rate usually happens at big research universities where the teaching load is much different.
Slocum retired from Goucher at the end of the Spring 2019 semester. He taught at Goucher for 27 years, specializing in plant physiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology.
His work has not been confined to the stone walls of campus, however. Slocum spent three months after college studying lichens in Antarctica, and continued to study the organism for his master’s at Ohio State University. For his doctorate at UT Austin, Slocum studied phytochrome, the plant pigment that senses the transitions from day to night to day and helps plants know when to flower.
Then, during a post-doc at Yale in 1982, Slocum participated in one of the first plant experiments aboard the space shuttle. “People recognized that plants would be an important part of a sustainable ecosystem in long-term space flight,” Slocum said. They wanted to know how plants grow in a micro- or low-gravity environment. The shuttle was only in flight for a week, but the results were interesting. “Plants use gravity to orient themselves,” he said, but as long as there is a light source, plants will grow toward it. They appeared to develop normally in the absence of gravity.
From 2011 to 2012, Slocum took a leave of absence to serve as a program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF). He analyzed data from the previous decade to see how the success rate for NSF funding compared at large research universities and small colleges. Contrary to popular belief, “the success rates [at small colleges] were actually the same as, or better than, research universities’,” he said. The NSF was thrilled.
He’s had chances to leave Goucher, but it’s not something he ever considered. The Biology Program is like a family to Slocum; he loves getting up and coming to work every day. “We have each other’s backs,” he said of his colleagues.
His teaching philosophy is to work hard, play hard. He enjoys socializing with his students and colleagues, with nature hikes, the year-end BioBlast party, and annual trips to Longwood Gardens. He loves to teach; he’s outgoing, and it suits him.
And he’s hardly done. As his career at Goucher ends, he’s not yet finished with the research. He’ll make a few more trips to Texas to work with his mentor—continuing to work with plants engineered with a gene that improves the water usage and nutrient uptake in crops. “We’re trying to understand the molecular basis for that,” Slocum said.
He and his wife look forward to traveling outside the restrictions of the academic calendar. Slocum will have more time for gardening and photography. And there will be time, in fact, to teach the occasional biology course, as needed. He always knew he would be a teacher. Why stop now?